By Eve Tahmincioglu
msnbc.com contributor
updated 10/20/2009 7:36:30 AM ET 2009-10-20T11:36:30

Wendi Goldsmith, president of a “green” design and construction firm, is no stranger to landing government contracts, but she’s not expecting a windfall from the billions flowing into green businesses as part of the $787 billion federal stimulus package.

Her firm, Salem, Mass.-based The Bioengineering Group Inc., recently was awarded a $25,000 government contract related to water quality and efficiency management. But she described the contract as a token compared to other work she has applied for.

“Even though we’ve gotten a snippet of stimulus money, women-owned firms are at a disadvantage when it comes to green funds,” she said.

Goldsmith is actually one of the lucky ones. The track record for women-led companies getting federal contracts has been dismal. Only 3.4 percent of the $514 billion spent on federal procurement contracts in 2008 went to companies owned by women.

Based on that data, it seems likely that little of the $80 billion in federal stimulus funds earmarked for clean energy and green investments will go to women-owned businesses.

Of the total $787 billion in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, about $111.2 billion has been disbursed so far to 37,604 projects, according to www.recovery.org,a private Web site that tracks stimulus spending.

The government wants the funds disbursed quickly to give the economy a boost, so entrenched firms that already have federal contract experience likely will be favored.

Majority owned by men
In the green industry, the majority of those are owned by men, according to federal procurement and women business experts. Also, many of the businesses that are likely to benefit are in industries that are notoriously underrepresented by women, such as construction, energy and technology.

Bias against women-owned business, as well as a lack of women stepping up to bid for government contracts also are contributing to the problem. “Discrimination is real, but I also think women need to be educated and trained on how to sign up,” said Margaret Barton, executive director of the National Women's Business Council.

By most accounts, the government has done little to level the playing field for female entrepreneurs.

“The federal government has not done a good job of encouraging women or minorities to participate in procurement. Women by and large have been kept out of that equation,” said Deardra Green-Campbell, executive director of the Women's Economic Development Agency in Atlanta, a nonprofit partly funded by the Small Business Administration.

SBA officials acknowledge more needs to be done. Hayley Matz, press secretary for the SBA, said in a statement that the agency “has put mechanisms in place to help women-owned businesses."

"As part of the president’s initiative, federal agency procurement officials will hold or participate in more than 200 events to share information on government contracting opportunities, including those available under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act,” she said.

The federal government would like to raise the percentage of women-owned businesses who land procurement contracts to 5 percent. (Women own nearly 30 percent of all nonfarm businesses in the United States, according to the most recent data from the Census Bureau.)

The Small Business Women’s Procurement Program Act, which was passed more than eight years ago, was supposed to help boost participation by women, but women’s groups balked at how the Bush administration interpreted the program and it was never implemented. The Obama administration is expected to announce new rules for the program in 2010, said the Barton of the National Women's Business Council.

Correct implementation of the procurement program “is the single biggest thing the federal government can do to can help women entrepreneurs access the federal marketplace, including ‘green economy’ initiatives,” said Rep. Nydia Velázquez, D-N.Y., chairwoman of the House Committee on Small Business.

For now, women are getting lost in the shuffle among the urgency of getting the economy moving, pointed out Teresa Nelson, director of the Entrepreneurship Program at Boston’s Simmons College School of Management. While moving the funds out quickly is a short-term fix, she maintained there’s “a longer-term interest in making the economy more participatory.”

“If you want to see an economy that’s balanced and women have access, you have to make an effort to do outreach in order to include them,” she said.

It’s unclear how much green funding doled out thus far has gone to women entrepreneurs, because data is not collected by that category, according to the SBA’s Matz.

Despite government goals for female participation, government agencies and large companies looking for subcontractors to complete federal contracts aren’t scrambling to enlist women-owned businesses, said Jeff White, president of mySBX.com, a Web site that connects businesses with government contracts.

White is seeing a preference for firms owned by military veterans and those based in lower income areas when it comes to government green contracts, but “there’s not a lot of government teeth in the women-owned status,” he explained.

Women often have to jump through more hoops proving themselves not just for government contracts, but also with traditional lenders and venture capital investors, said Susan Mac Cormac, co-chair of international law firm Morrison & Foerster's cleantech and venture capital practices.

Women may also lack the desire to compete for the contracts, especially when it comes to clean tech or sustainable energy, said Susan Preston, who manages the California Clean Energy Angel Fund, which focuses on investment in early stage green companies.

The majority of green business plans she sees are coming from men. But the green industry is relatively new, she maintained, so the field is wide open to any ambitious entrepreneur with a solid idea. “I would really love to see women embracing this area and taking advantage of the fact that there aren’t a lot of defined stakeholders already and the field is relatively open," she said.

Help for women-owned firms
But women have to educate themselves, said Green-Campbell of the Atlanta-based nonprofit, who called the procurement process “daunting.” About 9 percent of the small firms registered to compete for federal contracts are women, according to the SBA.

That’s why organizations such as Green-Campbell’s are out there to help women. There are Women’s Business Centers around the country, set up to help women-owned business with a host of entrepreneurial issues, including government procurement.

She suggested that women looking to compete for contracts register their business with a state procurement registry. They also should register on federal procurement sites such as www.FedBizOpps.gov and Central Contractor Registration.

The first thing to do, advised Glenn Croston, author of "75 Green Businesses" and founder of www.StartingUpGreen.com, is to figure out where the federal green dollars are going — to federal contracts or to block grants for states and communities.

Ask yourself, he said, how your business or business idea can relate to energy efficiency and how that fits into what’s going on in your town when it comes to stimulus money and even tax credits.

He advised teaming up with a partner who has experience in the federal procurement bidding process and considering acting as subcontractor on a larger contract instead of a primary contractor.

“It takes digging, pounding the pavement or pounding away on the Internet. Go to green networking events, and find out who the people are working on this,” he said. “The fly isn’t going to land on your plate.”

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